The best exercise machines for legs guaranteed to tone and strengthen

Build your lower limbs with our guide to the best exercise machines for legs

Woman starting a pulling split squat using a Smith machine
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Squats, box jumps and spinning - they all really take their toll on your legs, and you're bound to feel it the next day when you fall out of bed. 

But leg day is just as important as targeting other areas of the body, such as the abs and shoulders. Toning our legs, whether it's our quads, calves or hamstrings, give us the strength to perform more aerobic exercises and helps to prevent injuries. 

Whilst bodyweight moves and activities such as running and walking are amongst the best leg workouts you can do, using key pieces of exercise equipment can also reap rewards. 

Below we detail the best exercise machines for legs, according to the experts. Whether you're hitting the gym or building your own home workout space, these are the essential bits of kit to look for. And for more ways to work those lower limbs, consider taking on our 30-day legs challenge!

1. Exercise bike

Men and women on exercise bikes during a spinning class

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Thomas Davis, a professional triathlete for INCUS Performance may ride a bike for a living, but he also swears by the benefits of stationary bikes when it comes to working those leg muscles (see our pick of the best exercises bikes to get going on).

Although it may be tempting to do so, his top tip is not to spend all your time sitting down. Instead to mix up your bike sessions with periods of sitting and standing if you want to tone your legs.

"Cycling out of the saddle really works the quads," he says. "A good session is to do a 10-minute warm up, and then alternate one minute standing and one minute seated. Start with 10 mins, and then build this over subsequent weeks."

Another way to work your legs on the exercise bike is by doing sprints, which will work your calves and thighs.

"After a good warm up, do three sets of 5 x 10 sec sprints," Thomas advises. "These sprints should be working as hard as you can."

He adds: "Start in your hardest gear and by the end of the 10 secs try to be pedaling at a normal pace.  Take a long rest between the sprints so you can hit the sprints hard".

2. Smith machine 

Woman doing a wide stance sumo squat using a Smith machine

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Smith machine is a kind of 'cage' for barbells, allowing you to lift these weights safely and minimizing the risk of injury or accidents. Think of it as a midway point between free weights and a traditional resistance machine.

It's a multi-purpose bit of kit, which can be used in various ways to work different parts of your body.

Below Claire Davis, a personal trainer and co-founder of Midlife Mentors , details two of the best exercises you can perform on the Smith machine to target your legs. It will probably come as no surprise to learn that they both involve squats, as this love-it-or-hate-it move is great for toning your lower limbs. For more variations to try, see our guide on how to do squats. You could also take on our 30-day squats challenge.

Wide Stance Sumo Squat

"The wide stance sumo squat is great for the quads and inner thighs," says Claire. 

To get started, grasp the barbell and adopt the correct starting stance. Make sure your feet are just over hip-width apart, with the feet slightly angled out and far enough in front of you so when you lower into a squat, your bottom goes back and down like you’re sitting on a chair.

Push through the heels as you rise, which in turn will activate the glutes. Also squeeze the glutes at the top, then repeat.

Always start with a low weight and number of reps to ensure you feel capable and confident before advancing this move.

Pulling Split Squat

According to Claire, the pulling split squat is also a great addition to your workout routine, as you can isolate one leg at a time to really feel the burn. "This is so good for the glutes, but also the legs in general," she says.

Grasping the barbell, step one leg backwards and lower. Make sure the knee of the front leg is in line with the ankle and the quad is almost parallel to the floor. Pulse through the heel for 10-12 reps, then swap sides. 

3. Rowing machine

Man using a rowing machine to workout

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Many make the mistake of thinking that rowing mainly works your arms and shoulders, but it's actually a full-body workout. A study by the English Institute of Sport found that rowing activates 86% of the body’s muscles, compared to 44% for biking and running - and that includes those legs.

Lower body muscles activated during a session on the rowing machine includes the quadriceps and glutes, whilst the deltoids and lats in the upper body also get a workout, along with key core muscles (including the coveted abs).

The legs get a particular workout during the 'drive' part of a rowing stroke (the bit where you push of until your legs are almost fully extended and pull the handlebar back towards the ribcage), according to a spokesperson from Hydrow, the immersive at-home rowing machine. "This part will help to strengthen your leg muscles – specifically, the hamstrings and glutes," they say.

The 'recovery' part of the stroke (where you hinge forward at your hips and bend your knees to return to the starting 'catch' position) also targets your legs, particularly the hamstrings, glutes and calves which contract as you slide the seat down the rail.

4. Leg Press

Man using a leg press machine to workout his legs and lower body

(Image credit: Getty Images)

As the name suggests, this classic item of gym machinery is all about the legs.

However, whilst you might think that the more weight you can leg press the stronger your legs will get, the key is actually all about the positioning of your feet according to Claire.

"Make sure they’re just over hip-width apart and slightly turned out on the plate," she advises. "Push with the heels - as if the toes could be pointed upwards. This activates the glutes as well as the quads, hamstrings and inner thighs."

She adds: "Ideally you want to do three sets of 12 and pick a weight where you are struggling to push on the last couple of reps."

Sarah Finley
Sarah Finley

Sarah is a freelance journalist who writes about fitness and wellbeing for the BBC, Woman&Home and Tech Radar. During lockdown she found her love of running outside again and now attempts to run around 50 miles a month. When it comes to other fitness, she loves a sweaty cardio session – although since she’s been working out from home she’s sure her downstairs neighbors aren’t too happy about it. She also loves to challenge herself - and has signed up to do hiking holidays, intense bootcamps and last year she went on her dream activity holiday: paddle boarding around deserted islands in Croatia. On her rest days, she loves to recover with a simple yoga flow session – the perfect antidote to her active fitness schedule.